Leaving for Chicago

[27 years ago on this date, November 25, I left Los Angeles, arriving in Chicago on December 3.  I have now lived in Chicago sc00039808more years than I have lived in any other place.This essay is part of a much larger work in progress, call it a memoir of a radical bookseller if you want.  It is also an exploration of what it means to use words to change the course of social development, what new ideas mean in the course of human history, and an exploration of how the introduction of new ideas — call it propaganda — changes from the days of the first printing press to the new days of the twittersphere. — Lew Rosenbaum]

Harold Washington was dead. It felt like a sledgehammer in the gut, hearing the words coming from the car radio on November 25, 1987. News radio KFWB in Los Angeles, give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world. Well, they gave it to us and my wife and I were not prepared for it. I chose this day, the day before Thanksgiving, to leave Los Angeles for Chicago (with stops in Phoenix, Edmond (Oklahoma), and Rolla (Missouri) on the way).

Some people maintain that there is no bad time to leave Los Angeles. We picked the worst time.

Wednesday, November 25, 1987. Rush hour on the San Bernardino Freeway, heading east, out of town at 4 pm. The day before Thanksgiving. The Toyota station wagon packed full, the rear view mirror useless, then more added to the carrier rack on top. Lee, her sister Marie, and I squeezed inside, Marie wedged in among packages and clothing in the back.

That morning I said good-byes to our Chinatown neighbors, people we had known for many years. The people in our building still thanked us for fighting the landlord to keep him from doubling the rents in violation of rent-control. By early afternoon, irritation at our delay had reached mountainous proportions. When we finally piled into the car and I started the engine, the irritation began to recede. By the time, 15 minutes later, when we’d entered the freeway off Mission St. and inched our way across four lanes to go toward San Bernardino, we had resigned ourselves to baking in slow moving traffic, millions of Angelenos leaving for the holiday weekend.

80 miles to the east towered the peaks of Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, 10,000 feet above the desert floor. We might be lucky and make it through Banning and into the San Gorgonio Pass in 2 hours. By then, once the sun had set behind us, the drive would be tolerable, even as we entered the desert. Resignation didn’t stop us from blaming each other for the late start, but soon that became old. We listened to music for a while, nothing to seize our attention.   As we passed Pomona, we turned on the all news station. “Give us 20 minutes and we’ll give you the world.”

We didn’t need KFWB to give us the traffic report. It was all around us. We weren’t prepared for the world. Sports and weather yielded to the big story of the day. Harold Washington, mayor of my new home, Chicago, had suffered a massive heart attack, or so it was thought. The news confirmed that he was dead. There may have been other news. There probably was. Lee and I stared open mouthed at each other. Marie, who had not known the significance of Washington’s election against the machine, the significance of his program, couldn’t fathom the grief we showed.

I turned the radio louder, expecting to hear more if I turned it up. When the radio refused to divulge new information, we started switching stations, Lee turning the buttons. We needed to be sure that what we had heard was true.

Then, when finally we hit the vivid loneliness of the desert, the news story sunk in, as if in the noise of the horns and the rubber against cement it was impossible to come to grips with the truth. We stopped at a diner in Indio, silently ate burgers for dinner, gassed up the car, and crossed into Arizona. It was late when we reached Phoenix, pulled up in the driveway outside the Yue family house, and, physically and emotionally exhausted, fell into bed.

Thanksgiving came and went, we stayed through the weekend, and then packed up again, saying good-bye to family. It might be my last time in Phoenix, I thought. Marie stayed behind, Lee and I headed to Chicago. We stopped with Lee’s friends in Edmond, Oklahoma; then in Rolla, Missouri we stayed over in a motel. Late afternoon the next day, Thursday, December 3, we drove into Chicago as the somber daylight was fading, temperature in the rainy, nasty, bone-chilling forties and going down. As we came in, thousands had gathered in the University of Illinois pavilion, at a memorial for the mayor the people called “Harold.”

Jo Ann and Mike made us a bed in their living room, a second floor apartment in Humboldt Park. Desperate to get a feel for my new city, we walked in the rain for a couple of blocks, got a bite to eat at the first local dive, and then went back to unpack. We stayed for a few days until I could settle in. As soon as I got my bearings, I moved a mile east to Wicker Park, the front room of the first floor of an old three-flat at 1248 Hoyne. But when you’ve come 2,000 miles east, left the life you’ve known for 27 years, made plans to move your family to a new city, to take up a position for which you have been recruited, you feel obliged, anxious, need to look again, even if you know the surroundings, to see where you will be spending the next section of your life. So that’s what Lee & I did. We went to Lincoln Avenue, went to see Richard Bray, went to Guild Books.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Mr. Sourwine, Mr. Feely and Mr. Port are not names from the pages of Dickens novel. They speak from the pages of a transcript of hearings before a subcommittee of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings, held August 3, 1970, investigated the “Extent of Subversion in the “New Left.” Senator Marlow Cook presided over these hearings. J.G. Sourwine was the chief counsel. The subcommittee met in Washington, D.C. and took the testimony of Hugh Patrick Feely and Harry Port, both board members of the Lincoln park (Chicago) Conservation Association. Feely & Port had conducted “investigations” of revolutionary organizations operating in Lincoln Park in the 2 years prior to the hearings. Early in the testimony Port brought a list of “revolutionary organizations” and organizations supporting them, to the attention of the committee. He mentioned churches, youth gangs (these include the Young Lords and Young Patriots organizations), underground media, a coffehouse, the Student Health Organization, and Guild Books, characterized as a “radical information center.”

Much later in the transcript, p 1096, the following exchange occurs between Mr. Sourwine and Mr. Port:

Mr. Port: The other thing, what I call radical information centers which handle not only the underground newspapers from Chicago but material which is Communist material which is printed in China, and so forth, which are the Guild Book Shop, and the People’s Information Center, located in the Lincoln Park area.

Mr. Sourwine: Tell us a little about each one.

Mr. Port: The Guild Book Shop, as well as acting as a bookshop also is the publisher of the Second City newspaper, which is an underground newspaper purporting to deal in matters of revolutionary activities.

Mr. Sourwine: Is the Guild Book Shop in fact a book shop?

Mr. Port: It acts as a bookshop, yes.

Mr. Sourwine: Where is it located?

Mr. Port: It is located on Halsted Street, 2136 North Halsted . . .

Mr. Sourwine: What is the Guild, so-called, in connection with the Guild Book Store?

Mr. Port: I have no idea.

Mr. Sourwine: Do you know who owns the Guild Book Shop or runs it?

Mr. Port: I do not.

Mr. Sourwine: What goes on there that is subversive, or violent, or contributes to subversion or violence?

Mr. Port: I would say it is the distribution point of most of the radical literature in the area.

Mr. Sourwine: You understand, I am not arguing . . .

Mr. Port: Right. In other words, their ad would read, you know, “Open 7 days a week, Marxist and other radical literature.”

Mr. Sourwine: Are you in fact reading from one of their ads?

Mr. Port: Right . . .

Mr. Sourwine: Should the text of that ad go into this record, in your opinion?

Mr. Port: I would say that, since they mention Marxist and other radical literature, Lenin, Mao, underground press, et cetera.

". . .my greatest satisfaction is in getting things done . . ."

Post card from South African activist and poet Denis Brutus

The testimony hints at what Lincoln Park was like then. During the 2 years prior to these hearings the 1968 Democratic Party convention had taken place in Chicago, with much of the activity and leadership emanating from organizations in Lincoln Park. In between then and October, 1969, according to Mr. Port’s detailed research, the Young Lords Organization initiated many protests and takeovers in Lincoln Park, often with the help of SDS, the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, and others. Lincoln Park was the foundation and stronghold of the Young Lords, based among Puerto Rican youth. The immediate cause of the investigation was the October 8 to October 11 “Bring the War Home” rally scheduled for Lincoln Park, that turned into what the committee termed a riot. Fred Hampton’s name appears in the records, mainly as a speaker at a number of northside rallies. No one mentions, in the hearings, the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panthers, on December 4, 1969.

Reading this testimony more than 40 years later feels almost prurient, voyeuristic. Of the names mentioned, some continued for many years as key activists in causes for social justice. Among them are people who own businesses today, teach university classes, offer art classes to south side young people. But there it is, the Guild Book Shop, then on Halsted Street, the center of distribution of all this dangerous material that foments violence and subversion. What a wonderful pedigree to inherit, to explore. And then I did.

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